Medal no surprise to mom
June 07,2006
CHRIS MAZZOLINI
DAILY NEWS STAFF

Molly Butler-Peagler of Jacksonville learned about her son’s brave deeds when she received his Bronze Star citation in an e-mail.

There was an ambush with death and spent shells. And there was a daring rooftop rescue, led by her oldest son, 1st Lt. Alfred Lee Bulter IV.

It floored her.

“It took me a moment to compose myself,” she said. “I cried. It took me a few days to unwind. Then I realized it was nothing less than I’d ever expect from him.”

Mother’s don’t love Bronze Stars. They love the sons who wear them. Battlefield heroics are a dicey proposition for military mothers, one of the many complexities for women who send their sons to war.

What’s it like to learn how far down your own flesh and blood descended into the abyss, only to rise not only unharmed but a hero.

“It’s bittersweet,” Butler-Peagler said.

Sweet: It’s nothing less than she ever expected.

Bitter: Why must he be so brave?

Having a Bronze Star pinned to his chest at Camp Fallujah, Iraq, didn’t make Butler feel like a hero. Instead, it reminded the 27-year-old Jacksonville native of a frenzied day of gunfighting and sacrifice.

“The honest truth, I really couldn’t sleep the day they told me (that I earned the medal),” Butler said from Iraq, where he is now serving as Weapons Company executive officer for Camp Pendleton’s 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. “I’ve been spending the last year and a half trying to forget about it. I was in the wrong place and I had to do what everyone else would do.”

That place was the war-choked streets of Fallujah, December 2004, about a month after U.S. forces overran the city in a highly publicized battle. Butler was commanding an 81-mm mortar platoon, tasked with clearing houses, many of which hid armed insurgents.

A number of Butler’s Marines were ambushed inside a house, getting into a rifle and grenade fight on a stairwell.

“They started coming up the stairwell and the insurgents started throwing grenades down on top of them,” he said. “They were getting chewed to pieces.”

Butler and his Marines pulled their comrades from the house, only to learn there was a group of Marines trapped on the second floor.

Butler rounded up his troops and made a plan: They would get to their trapped comrades by hopping roofs. Taking continuous fire from insurgents, Butler’s Marines did just that. At one point, Butler said he remembered straddling the gap between two buildings, helping the wounded across while the enemy fired bullets and grenades. They pulled every Marine from the house that day.

It was simply duty, Butler said.

“Doing nothing was worse than dying for me,” he said. “Those were my Marines, those were my boys. The only thing I could think about was getting them out of that house.”

The battle lasted about an hour and half, he said. They fired so many rounds that they had to hoist the rifles of their fallen comrades. When those ran empty, they fired confiscated AK-47s.

“It was just a real nasty day,” he said. “I started out with 17 guys and it ended with six (able to continue fighting). The Marines wouldn’t leave each other. It was one of those moments that you just have to see to believe. I’m still in awe of the stuff I saw those guys do that day.”

Butler received his Bronze Star with a Combat V on May 19 at Camp Fallujah. It was pinned on by Maj. Gen. Richard Natonski, the 1st Marine Division commander, and a Marine who knew Butler’s late father.

A vision

Butler was a born a Marine, his mother said. A self-described military brat, he wanted nothing more than to emulate his father, grandfather and uncle.

“I don’t recall a day he wasn’t wearing a Marine outfit,” Butler-Peagler said. “I think it was imprinted on him when he was little. He was meant to be a Marine. It’s all he’s ever wanted to be.”

His father, Maj. Alfred Lee Butler III, was killed in February 1984 in Beirut, one of the last Marines to die in a campaign made infamous by the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks.

Butler was five when his father died, but he still followed in his footsteps.

“He’s a carbon copy of his father in every way, physically and mentally,” Butler-Peagler said.

Butler is not one to flaunt medals or offer war stories.

“He’s not one to talk about what happened,” she said. “Warriors of a true sense don’t. He would not tell me any of this. Of course, he knew how close to my heart, having lost his father over there and (my son) going over there again.”

But when she did catch a glimpse of the warrior he had become, and when she overcame her shock and fear, she realized she was not surprised at all.

“I wouldn’t have expected anything else out of my son,” she said. “He’s a resolute, uncompromising warrior. I know that everything he does is for his men, those Marines in his charge, to get them home to their mothers and their families.”

Butler has been to Iraq three times in three years. His first tour came in 2003, straight out of Officer Candidate School, when he was shipped over for the initial invasion. It’s difficult, she said, and she copes not by picturing a battlefield, but by thinking of homecoming.

“It’s been three years of trying to put it in the back door,” she said. “I knew he was going through desperate times. I just get the support of my family and keep a vision of him walking in the door.”

Contact Chris Mazzolini at cmazzolini@freedomenc.com or 353-1171, Ext. 229.

Ellie